Although “The Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” comes to us from director Jody Hill and actor/co-writer Danny McBride, the masterminds behind the exuberantly surly HBO sitcoms “Eastbound and Down” and “Vice Principals,” far too much of this wildly uneven Netflix-bound comedy (scheduled to launch July 6) plays less like a transgressive farce than an overextended “Saturday Night Live” sketch. And yet, even at its most puerile and pedestrian, the movie remains at least passably amusing because of Josh Brolin’s totally committed and unabashedly heartfelt lead performance as Buck Ferguson, a good-ol’-boy celebrity outdoorsman who communicates a boundless joy as he tracks and kills whitetail bucks and other wildlife, and commands a loyal audience for his TV specials and DVDs.
With nary a wink to indicate that parody is his aim, Brolin recalls the furious seriousness that fueled Seth Rogen’s savagely comical performance of a self-deluding security guard in Hill’s 2009 feature “Observe and Report.” Indeed, time and again throughout the pokey proceedings here, you get the impression that Brolin isn’t satisfied with merely playing for laughs; rather, he wants you to know, and appreciate, that he’s playing for keeps.
Brolin neatly balances enthusiasm and obsession right from the start, as Ferguson (whose name could well be a soundalike nod to George C. Scott’s gung-ho Gen. Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”) is introduced in the equivalent of a highlight reel showcasing his twin gifts for lethal marksmanship and robust speechifying. Not unlike some of the real-life celebrities on whom he is based, Buck routinely describes hunting as one of the more sacred family values. It’s a notion that infuses what promises to be a very special episode of his TV show, as he takes his estranged 12-year-old son Jaden (newcomer Montana Jordan) on a hunting weekend so the boy can bag his very first whitetail deer.
The adventure is intended as a bonding experience, to strengthen frayed father-son ties at a time when Buck’s ex-wife (Carrie Coon), Jaden’s mother, is contemplating marriage to the polar opposite of an alpha male (Scoot McNairy). It’s also fodder for another reality-TV segment recorded by Don (Danny McBride), Buck’s longtime friend and videographer, who keeps his camera running even at times when Buck wishes he wouldn’t.
Of course, nothing goes the way Buck hopes as they traipse through the great outdoors of North Carolina. Jaden is a surly and self-absorbed tweener who’s more interested in cell-phoning his girlfriend than lying in wait for a “non-typical” whitetail deer. (Sleeping in the woods is not at all appealing to him: “I always considered myself more of a Marriott kind of guy.”) And Don is not exactly someone you want in close proximity to your adolescent child for long periods, given his tendency to offer wholly inappropriate descriptions (complete with photo displays) of his girlfriend’s sexual flexibility.
Here and there — most notably, when Jaden and the audience are given fleeting peeks at the aforementioned photos — “Legacy of a Whitetail Deer Hunter” appears poised to tap into a different, darker, and more aggressively impolite vein of humor. But the movie (which Hill and McBride co-wrote with frequent collaborator John Carcieri) never really develops sufficient edginess to be truly offensive. (Which is not quite the same thing as saying it is never annoying: Jordan is rather too successful at making Jaden gratingly obnoxious.) The closest you may come to feeling squeamish will be during a scene in which Jordan expresses his preference for an assault weapon over a standard hunting rifle.
McBride is good for a few chuckles during the first two-thirds of the movie and continues to contribute a fair share of funny business after the plot takes a not altogether persuasive serious turn. But Brolin remains the main attraction, and the saving grace, during this lost weekend in the woods.